Gerard Manley Hopkins it ain’t, but Wainwright too knows that when he grieves for others, he mourns for himself.
Like lots of aging baby boomers, Loudon Wainwright III has spent on the planet more years than his father. Older Than My Old Man Now addresses that issue head on, as well as other related concerns. The 15 original tracks address aging, changing family relationships, and death, in sincere and heartfelt ways that make one consider his or her own mortality. Some are also strange and silly. After all, this is Loudon Wainwright III, a man whose only chart topping hit was an ode to a “Dead Skunk” that was in the middle of the road and stinking to high heaven.
Wainwright begins the album with the autobiographical “The Here and Now”. The narrator wonders how he how got to be so old and reflects on the decades his lived through. What sticks in his mind are the women and children he loved most. The song features the singing of all four of his children – Rufus and Martha Wainwright, Lucy Wainwright Roche, and Lexie Kelly Wainwright – as well as the two living mothers of his kids. (Later, Loudon also performs a previously unrecorded song he wrote with his other ex-wife, the late Kate McGarrigle.) But his sweet memories are clouded by the fact that he is old and feels uncomfortably close to death. Being in “The Here and Now” reveals life was better back then – not exactly Baba Ram Dass and living in the moment. The centerpiece of the album, the title song, features a recitation by Wainwright of a piece his father wrote about his father – the original Loudon Wainwright. The grandson reads the words about the spirit of his grandfather haunting his own father after the grandfather’s death in a tone that is more touching than morbid. Loudon III acts as a medium and a participant as we chart the influence his dead father had on him. However, outliving one’s father doesn’t mean one is ever free of the pull of the past – and the fear of one’s own mortality. He sings:
”Nobody’s sure exactly why
But everybody’s got to die.
Still it comes as quite a blow, knowing that you have to go
And the world is going to pass you by.”
Gerard Manley Hopkins it ain’t, but Wainwright too knows that when he grieves for others, he mourns for himself. So like the rest of us, Wainwright tries to stay healthy through various methods. The humorous “My Meds” takes on the pharmaceutical industry and namechecks Lipitor, Crestor, Lorazepam, Lexapro and other drugs marketed to the aging, as well as Chinese herbs and acupuncture. Wainwright notes that “You’ll need something stronger than your Advil and Alleve / If you want to eat and sleep and piss and crap and schtup and breathe.” In the liner notes, he mentions that he wanted his hero Tom Lehrer to join him on this song but was unable to. This song fits squarely in Lehrer’s comic tradition in its mixture of self-deprecation and dead pan seriousness at how we live in the modern world. As does “I Remember Sex”, sung here with Dame Edna Everage who he met on the set of Ally McBeal back in the day. Yes, the performance lacks subtlety, but that is the point. We make too much out of sex, but what else is worth so much ado? These songs leaven the heaviness of living only to die.
Wainwright does one other recitation of his father’s prose. This one concerns the importance of family and how everyone sees the past differently – parents and children. He’s joined by his son Rufus, who sings that for a kid to win somehow diminishes the power of the parent – and somehow, both people lose. It’s an elegant piece, with the Wainwrights joined by Gabriel Kahane on spinet and piano. The title, “The Days That We Die”, highlights the solemnity of the occasion. We think that we never change, but that only happens after we die. Older Than My Old Man Now tackles serious topics with empathy and laughter. By looking at himself, Wainwright shows us what will someday happen to all of us. The picture may not be pretty, but depending on one’s angle of vision, it may not be so bad.